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King Æthelstan of England


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King Æthelstan of England

  • Born: 894, England
  • Died: 27 Oct 939, England at age 45
  • Buried: 939, Abbey Church, Gloucester, England

  General Notes:

Æthelstan or Æþelstan (c. 895–October 27, 939) was the King of England from 924 to 939. He was the son of King Edward the Elder, and nephew of Æthelflæd of Mercia. His reign is frequently overlooked, with much focus going to Alfred before him, and Edgar after. However, his reign was of fundamental importance to political developments in the tenth century.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was so vocal during the reign of Alfred and Edward, falls into relative silence during Æthelstan's reign. A few references tell us of his militaty campaigns, the longest entry by far being a poem about the Battle of Brunanburh. Other narrative sources from across Europe, though, provide us with more information. The Annals of Flodoard contain several references to Athelstan's dealing with the rulers of west and east Francia, as does the Chronicle of Nantes. It is William of Malmesbury, however, writing in the early 12th century, who provides us with the greatest detail. Caution is called for, however, in that William's account can not often be backed up.

Other written sources come in the form of charters and laws. Numerous charters exist that tell us about where Æthelstan was, who was with him, and to whom he was granting land. Through these it is even possible to trace his movements, such as prior to the Brunanburh campaign. We have several law codes attributed to Athelstan; a couple are law codes after the tradition of Alfred and Edward; the others are less 'official', but nonetheless reveal interesting aspects of Athelstan's 'administration'.

Non-written sources are also available. Perhaps most useful are coins, which give Athelstan a title which reveals how widespread he (or rather the minter) felt his reign extended.

Æthelstan was the son of Edward the Elder, and grandson of Alfred the Great. His father succeeded, after some difficulty, to the kingdom of Wessex. His aunt, Edward's sister, Æthelflæd, ruled western Mercia following the death of her husband, Æthelred. On Æthelflæd's death, Edward was quick to assume control of Mercia, and by his death he ruled all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms south of the Humber. Athelstan was raised in Mercia, perhaps as a method of encouraging Mercian loyalty to the West Saxon dynasty. It seems to have worked. On Edward's death, Athelstan immediately became king of Mercia, though it took a little longer for him to received the crown of Wessex, in 925.

Political alliances seem to have been high on Æthelstan's agenda. Only a year after his crowning he had a sister to Sihtric, the Viking king of York. However, Sihtric died only a year later, and Athelstan seized the chance to take Northumbria. This was a bold move, and made him the king of a larger territory than any Anglo-Saxon king before him. Perhaps taken slightly aback by this, the other rulers of Britain seem to have submitted to Athelstan at Bamburgh: "first Hywel, king of the West Welsh {Cornish}, and Constantine, king of the Scots, and Owain, king of the people of Gwent, and Ealdred...of Bamburgh" records the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. William of Malmesbury adds that Owain of Strathclyde was also present.

Similar events are recorded along the western marches of Æthelstan's domain. According to William of Malmesbury, Æthelstan had the kings of the North British (meaning the Welsh) submit to him at Hereford, where he exacted a heavy tribute from them. Similarly, he drove the West Welsh (meaning the Cornish) out of Exeter, and established the border along the Tamar.

Æthelstan is generally regarded as the first proper English king. He achieved considerable military successes over his rivals, including the Vikings, and extended his rule to parts of Wales and Cornwall. His greatest victory, over an enemy alliance that included Constantine II of Scotland, was the Battle of Brunanburh in 937.

Although he established many alliances through his family, he had no children of his own. He fostered Hakon the Good, who later became King of Norway.

Æthelstan's court was in contact with the rest of Europe; his half sisters married into European noble families, and foreign visitors sought it out. Among them was Egill Skallagrímsson, the subject of the Icelandic Egils Saga.

The tomb of King Æthelstan in Malmesbury Abbey, Malmesbury, England. There is nothing in the tomb beneath the statue, the relics of the king having been lost in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. The remains may have been destroyed by the Kings Commissioners or were hidden before the Commissioners arrived to close down the Abbey.Athelstan was religious and gave generously to the church in Wessex, when he died in 939 at Gloucester he was buried at his favourite abbey rather than with his family at Winchester. He was succeeded by his younger half-brother, King Edmund I of England.

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